R.M.T. Hunter to Hon. Shelton F. Leake.
Lloyds, Essex Co., VA., October 16th, 1857.
Dear Sir: I received on yesterday your letter propounding to me certain interrogatories, to which, without further delay, I proceed to reply. They are in substance nearly the same, with the questions upon which the Enquirer for some time past, has been demanding my answers. But to these last I have not replied, because they were either accompanied with threats, or what were so considered, which made answers on my part, inconsistent with self-respect, or else they were founded upon my presumed responsibility for the editorials of certain newspapers within, and without the State of Virginia, which were not only not authorized to speak for me, but which claimed no such authority. I was to be held responsible for the course of newspapers, unless I came before the public with a criticism of their course and a disclaimer of all sympathy with them; a responsibility, which I shall never acknowledge expressly, or impliedly, by any act of mine. To admit such a responsibility, would place it in the power of any third person who chose to impute to me a sympathy with the course of any newspaper within, or without the State, to call me out in a public criticism of its course upon any question of morals or politics which might be in discussion, or else fix upon me the charge of concurring in the views of that paper. No power could force upon me the office of censor of the public press. I certainly shall not assume it voluntarily. When any paper claims authority to speak for me, then it may be the time to question me in regard to it, but not before.
But to proceed with the answers to your interrogatories, I have to say, first, that the imputation of hostility, on my part, towards the administration of Buchannan, is founded upon nothing that I have either said or done. I voted for him as President, and not only entertain no feeling of hostility towards him, but I wish him success. He has only to carry out the principles of the Democratic party, as we understand them in Virginia, to command my cordial support. These, so far as applicable, will afford the test by which I shall judge his administration and support or oppose its acts, as they conform to, or depart from these principles. Nor shall I be disposed to apply that test in any captious, or unkind spirit, but as justly and fairly as I can. More I could not say for any administration or man. I never would commit myself to support unconditionally, the future acts of any man, but I will judge them as they arise, to sustain them when I believe they are right, and to oppose them when I think they are wrong. My opinions upon all the great political issues, may be known through my votes and speeches, to those who feel enough of interest in them, to look into my past course, and these will afford the best evidence of the tests which I shall be likely to apply, in judging of the conduct of public affairs. Whilst I remain in the Senate of the United States, I shall stand there as the representative of the principles and interests of my State, so far as I can understand them, and in the pursuit of these objects, I should not scruple to differ, if necessary, with any administration. In saying this, it may be perhaps fair to add, that I hope and expect to be able to support Mr. Buchanan’s administration in the main. Entire concurrence in the views of any man it would be too much to hope, or expect.
In answer to the other interrogatory which you propose as to the conduct of Governor Walker in Kansas, I have little hesitation in saying, that I disapprove. The Kansas-Nebraska act was passed under the hope that this, the last of the territorial questions, involving the subject of slavery, might be settled upon some common ground where a party could be rallied from the North and the South, the East and the West, strong enough to defend the Constitution against the assaults of its enemies and to administer the government justly upon other than purely sectional issues. To rally a party which might be able to maintain the Union upon constitutional principles, was an object of high political importance, and justified some sacrifices of feeling, and even of interest. Accordingly, the bill was not such as would have been framed by the delegates of either section, if it had been submitted to them alone. Many, perhaps most of the Southern men, (of whom I was one) believed that property in slaves was as much entitled to the protection of law in the Territories of the United States, as property in any thing else; but whilst the Northern friends of the Kansas act would not concede this, they agreed to unite in repealing the Missouri restriction so as to remove the ban under which the domestic institutions of the south had been placed by Federal legislation. Accordingly, a bill was passed upon the principle of non-intervention, in regard to slavery, so far as the General Government was concerned, and which left the whole subject within the control of the people of these territories, when they should apply for admission as States. This, although not all that we thought the South was entitled to, was a great advance upon the old order of things, so far as she was concerned, because it removed an unjust and odious discrimination against her domestic institutions, from the statute book. A moral triumph which was of vast importance to the South and to the institution of slavery itself. Nor could the North object to a bill which merely carried out a principle by which it had recently gained so largely in the series of acts, denominated as the Compromise Measures.
To all it ought to have been a subject of congratulation that a common ground had been found where a party might be rallied from all sections of the country to administer the government justly, and without sacrificing the constitutional rights of any portion of the Union. The sole hope of accomplishing so happy a result depended upon submitting this question of slavery to the people of these territories, when they came to form their constitutions as States, without interference of any sort on the part of the General Government. With the decision of the people themselves, so far as the character of the new States was concerned, the democratic party of all sections declared they would be satisfied. To fulfil, then, the conditions of this agreement, it was all important that there should be no interference on the part of the General Government, either through its Legislative or Executive influence. Any such interference was calculated to dissatisfy the one section or the other. Under such circumstances it was my opinion improper for the highest Executive officer in the Territory, the Governor of Kansas, to attempt to influence the decision of the people of that Territory, upon this question of slavery. Such an interference on the party of any branch of the Federal Government, was inconsistent with the principle of the Kansas-Nebraska act. Neither do I recognize his authority to declare that “if they (the convention) do not appoint a fair and impartial mode, by which a majority of the actual, bona fide settlers of Kansas, shall vote through the instrumentality of impartial judges, I will join you in all lawful opposition to their doing, and the President and Congress will reject their Constitution.” If the convention itself was legally constituted and elected, the question of submitting their work to the people for ratification, was one of which that body had jurisdiction alone, unless indeed the act which called them into being, had required a final ratification by the people.
The practice of States applying for admission, as I understand, has been in both ways. Nor has the power of the convention to determine this question for itself ever been controverted, heretofore, so far as I am informed. The convention of Kansas, if legally constituted, has all the powers of any other convention to form a State constitution, and if Congress can limit this power in one respect, it may in all. If Congress can reject a State constitution for the matter in which the convention has exercised its undoubted powers, why not for the matter also of the constitution, even though it may be republican in its form of government? or, if the Governor of a Territory may attempt to overawe a convention of its people in the exercise of its powers in one respect, why not in another? With regard to the abstract propriety of the particular recommendations of Governor Walker, I do not feel called upon to speak. That is a matter for the decision of the convention itself, with which I ought not to interfere. The abstract propriety of these recommendations depends upon circumstances, of which the people of Kansas, acting through their convention, are the best judges. To them I leave it as their own affair. As to which course would conduct most to their peace and a fair settlement of the question, I should require a greater knowledge of the actual state of affairs in that Territory to enable me to decide.
With these answers to your interrogatories, I might here close this letter, except that I infer you desire to know how far my opinion in regard to Governor Walker’s conduct may effect my course towards the Administration. What are the precise views of the President upon these questions, I know not; I await their development in the regular course. But should he differ how can any practical issue arise between him and those of his friends who entertain other opinions in regard to Governor Walker’s course? I say, I do not see how any practical issue could arise out of this matter between the President and those who might differ with him in regard to these things, because I do not believe for a moment that he would aid in an attempt to reject the State, if Kansas should apply for admission, merely because its convention did not choose to submit the constitution to the people for ratification.
Upon such a question as this, in regard to the right of Congress to limit the power of a people to form their State Constitution according to their own pleasure, provided it be republican in its character, I should think there could be no division of opinion amongst the members of the Democratic party in any section of the Union. There could not be, if they remain true to what I understand as their profession of faith. To establish the great principles of the equal rights of the States to the enjoyment of the territories of the United States, which no act of federal legislation can constitutionally abridge or destroy, and of the right of the people of each State to determine the character of their own domestic institutions without prejudice to their claim of admission into the Union, the Democratic party has submitted to losses and sacrifices, which could only have been justified by the successful accomplishment of a great object. To obtain a common ground upon which all might rally for the defense of the constitution and the peace of the country against the enemies of both, did constitute such an object. And now that the position has been conquered, after so arduous a struggle, who supposes that the Democratic party would volunteer a retrograde movement, and renounce the fruits of a hard-won victory? To abandon either of these positions now by a retrograde movement, would be an act of felo de se in the party, and not merely a folly, but a crime for which posterity would never forgive it. For these reasons I do not believe that the Democratic party, or the President whom it has chosen, will aid in any attempt to restrict the power of the people of Kansas, acting through their convention to form a constitution according to their own pleasure, both in manner and substance, provided it be republican in its character.
Having now answered fully your interrogatories, I need proceed no farther; but as you are kind enough to say that you question me not because you doubted me yourself, but to save me from misconception by others, I feel that I ought not to conclude without thanking you for your generous motives. To those who are disposed to misconstrue me, I have only to say, that if the past course of one who has served the State in a public capacity so long as I have, affords no sufficient guaranty as to his future conduct, it is idle to seek for further security in professions of faith. My past course affords the best evidences of my principles of public action, and these are the tests by which, as an honest man, I am bound to judge every administration. If, therefore, I should be blamed, if blameable at all, not for the act of differing with a President, but because of the false principles by which I am to judge him; so that it is by these that I am to be tried, after all. It is true, that when new questions arise, one may be fairly and properly questioned as to his opinions. But what is there new here? The principles of the Kansas Nebraska act, by which I have been just testing Governor Walker’s conduct, and the right of the people, acting through their convention, to form a constitution of republican character, according to their own pleasure, without prejudice to their claim of admission as a State in the Union, have all been discussed heretofore, by myself and others, far more fully than would be consistent with the limits of this letter. Nor have I expressed any opinion in regard to those questions, to which I have not been committed long since. If, then, I repeat sentiments which I have before declared, you will excuse me, as I do it in difference to your request.